Let’s hear it for progress

As a firm believer in progress, I’m convinced that, ever since Darwin created mankind, it has been going through a series of incremental improvements.

Imagine a steady climb from level ground to the top of a shining peak – that’s mankind progressing through the centuries. We may or may not have reached the very top yet, but we’ve certainly established a toehold within reach of the summit. 

Hence today’s head of Trinity’s philosophy chair is a deeper thinker than Plato and Aquinas put together, Tracy Emin is a better artist than either Piero della Francesca or Vermeer, Richard Branson is a more intrepid explorer than James Cook, and Justin Welby is a better Archbishop of Canterbury than Thomas à Becket.

To put this – only possible! – view of history to a test, I looked at the lyrics of one of the songs that enable the Trinidadian-American rapper Nicky Minaji to earn about $10 million a year. Here’s the refrain of the song (kindly posted on Facebook by a reader of mine):

You a stupid hoe, you a you a stupid hoe

You a stupid hoe, you a you a stupid hoe

You a stupid hoe, you a you a stupid hoe

You a stupid hoe, you a you a stupid hoe

You a stupid hoe, you a you a stupid hoe

You a stupid hoe, you a you a stupid hoe

You a stupid hoe, you a you a stupid hoe

You a stupid hoe, you a you a stupid hoe

Allow me to translate for the uninitiated: ‘hoe’ in this context is not the garden implement, but rather a certain ethnic, and therefore ‘cool’, way of pronouncing the word ‘whore’. However, you mustn’t assume on this basis that, when Father Christmas shouts ‘Ho, ho, ho’, he’s referring to three women of easy virtue.

‘Progress’ is of course a relative and dynamic concept. It signifies upward movement from a certain starting point, arbitrarily picked from the past.

That’s why I ignored the rather dubious absolute quality of Miss Minaji’s grammar and poetics – after all, poets, as we know, are entitled to some licence. Instead I set out to compare her lyrics with a reference point taken from the 16th century.

Of course the temptation is strong to compare Miss Minaji’s output with a Shakespeare sonnet, just as he himself compared his beloved to a summer’s day. But that wouldn’t be fair: one should compare the like with the like.

So here are the same number of lines from the lyrics of a 16th century song written by an anonymous minstrel who, at a guess, didn’t earn an equivalent of $10 million a year:

This sweet and merry month of May,

While Nature wantons in her prime,

And birds do sing, and beasts do play

For pleasure of the joyful time

I choose the first for a holiday,

And great Eliza with a rhyme:

O beauteous Queen of second Troy,

Take well in worth a simple toy.

There, you must agree that the notion of progress has passed the test: the poetic sensibility and sheer artistry of the modern verse is clearly superior, wouldn’t you say?

And if you’re still unsure, I suggest you listen to the CD of Alfred Deller singing 16th century songs, most of them of folk provenance. Your faith in progress, as represented by modern rap, will be reinforced to tungsten strength.

It goes without saying that our morality has been progressing in parallel with our vocal music. And tolerance is such an important part of morality that, for all intents and purposes, it may be its full modern synonym.

To wit: the multi-talented if unfunny comedian cum political guru Russell Brand has just referred to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in writing as a “f***ing Kraut Nazi”. Yet in our progressive – and tolerant! – time he has suffered no adverse consequences other than a few disapproving words from those who, unlike me, are suspicious of progress.

Going back to the non-progressive and intolerant 16th century, one wonders what would have happened to a jester who said something along the same lines about Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I – to say nothing of her song-writing father King Henry.

My off-the-cuff guess is that Russell Brand’s typological ancestor would have been merely drawn and quartered, if he was lucky. Now just imagine the hirsute Russell Brand, along with Nicky Minaji, being dragged to the block, where a muscular chap sporting a leather mask is taking practice swings with his axe…

No, don’t imagine that. The thought may prove to be too attractive – and too non-progressive for words.







Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.